US-Israeli tensions spill over into Israeli politics

Linda Gradstein/The Media Line

It all started when Secretary of State John Kerry explained why Israeli-Palestinian peace was more necessary than ever. He said that in every leader in the Arab world had “spontaneously” raised the issue, and then came the sentence that blamed Israel for the surge in recruitment for Islamic State (IS) and made headlines in Israel.

“It was a cause of recruitment and of street anger and agitation that they felt they had to respond to,” Kerry said, with “it” being the lack of resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “People need to understand the connection of that. And it has something to do with humiliation and denial and absence of dignity.”

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett was quick to respond, saying that “even a British Muslim beheads a British Christian, there will always be those who blame the Jews.”

Bennet was referring, of course, to Islamic State’s recent beheadings of four Western nationals.

The US State Department shot back that Bennett had misunderstood or misinterpreted Kerry’s remarks.

“Either this specific minister did not actually read what the secretary said, or someone is engaging in the politics of distortion here,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. “He (Kerry) did not make a linkage between Israel and the growth of ISIL (another name for IS), period.” 

Bennett fired off another message, which while seemingly conciliatory, upped the ante yet again.

“The US is indeed our great fired, and we are bolstering this friendship even more,” a statement from Bennet’s office said. “Nonetheless, the minister stands by his remarks….There was an obligation to react quickly in order to make sure that this comparison is never repeated.” 

Bennett also posted an angry Facebook message, saying that Kerry is perpetuating the mistaken assumption that all of the conflicts in the Middle Eaststem from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The notion regarding the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not true and puts Israel at risk,” he wrote. “The 9/11 attacks had nothing to do with Israel. Global Jihad has nothing to do with Israel. Al-Sisi’s revolution in Egypt had nothing to do with Israel. The disintegration of Iraq has nothing to do with Israel. The massacre of at least 150,000 people, including women and children, by Assad in Syria has nothing to do with Israel.”


The Prime Minister’s office was conspicuously silent during the entire exchange. 

Israeli analysts say that Bennett’s target was his fellow Israelis, more than the Obama administration. 

“Naftali Bennett is challenging Netanyahu and (Foreign Minister) Lieberman for leadership of the right wing in Israel,” Reuven Chazan, a professor of political science in Israel told The Media Line. “Bennett is looking to enhance his support among a specific electorate in Israel which does not like or trust the current Palestinian leadership.”

Bennett’s Jewish Home party holds 12 seats in the Israeli parliament, as compared to 19 for Netanyahu’s Likud, and 19 for Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s centrist party. Recent polls show Lapid’s support has plummeted dramatically as Israelis see him as ineffectual against the high cost of living in Israel. Bennett hopes to gather some of those disaffected voters, and increase his support in the Israeli government.

“We really have three medium sized parties on the right in Israel,” Chazan said. “Bennett is representing those who believe that the US is not watching our back and Israel needs to stand up for itself. He believes that Obama has tilted from being pro-Israeli past being an honest broker to understanding the Palestinians’ situation.”

The incident comes amid reports of US-Israeli tensions over several issues, primarily Netanyahu’s refusal to renew negotiations with the Palestinians over a final peace deal. Netanyahu told the UN that he wants to start a dialogue with Arab states on how to move forward with peace, yet given the other pressing issues in the Middle East, US officials do not take Netanyahu’s request seriously. They want to see him restarting the direct dialogue with the Palestinians on the issue of the borders of a future Palestinian state, and Israel’s needed security arrangements.

Israeli analysts said that Bennet’s mistake was not in responding to Kerry’s comments, but in attacking the Secretary of State personally.

“Americans can cope with criticism, but when it comes to personal insults there is often a strong reaction,” Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israeli relations at Bar Ilan University told The Media Line. “Kerry believes that he really does understand the Middle East. Bennett is new to politics and he was really infuriated by the statement.”


In contrast to Bennett, Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon took a more moderate stance, perhaps because he is currently in the US holding security talks.


Gilboa says that the US does not want to be in a position where they must veto a UN Security Council resolution recognizing Palestine, and incur the wrath of much of the Arab world.


“Kerry thinks that the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would prevent that Palestinian move at the UN, and he is using all kinds of arguments some of which makes sense and others of which do not,” he said.